India’s Farmers Protests: those who feed us must no longer stay starved

by  Meghana Hegdekar

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Meghana Hegdekar is a British Indian Law Graduate with an additional Masters degree in Law, Business and Management from Stoke-on-Trent, currently working as a paralegal in one of the UK’s leading human rights and social justice law firms.

 

This is the national flag of India. The saffron symbolises strength, sacrifice and courage. The white symbolises peace, purity and truth. And the green symbolises fertility, growth, the auspiciousness of the earth beneath us. It is a powerful reminder that our soil is sacred. Agriculture is the lifeblood of our country and our roots, crops and farmers who lay down their lives for them, the foundations of our nation. 

 

This flag represents the characteristics we most value and aim to embody as a country. It symbolises the hopes and aspirations of the people; a mark of national pride. But our response to the farmers protests will be remembered as a moment of national shame. When the voices of the countrymen and women our flag represents are silenced or, worse, met with violence, what does our flag symbolise?
 

For over 8 months, farmers have been protesting 3 laws, described as “death warrants”, that they fear, through deregulation, will accelerate corporate takeover, threaten decades-old concessions on minimum prices and leave them vulnerable to exploitation by private companies. The government, who can afford to experiment with industry modernisation, rushed these bills through Parliament, during a pandemic, without consultation with those whom it will affect. 

 

These protests are bigger than the Women’s March, Climate Strikes, Extinction Rebellion and BLM protests combined. On 26 November 2020, a quarter of a billion people were out on the streets. But it has garnered little global attention. To not hear about the biggest protest in human history for over half a year showcases the magnitude of national and global censoring.

We are all a link in this chain. Much of the food in our cupboards and clothes on our backs are from India. India produces 60% of the world’s spices. It is the largest milk and cotton producer to the global market and one of the largest exporters of medicines, cereals, tea, fruit, rice and more.

India is an agrarian country, with 60% of its population depending primarily on agriculture for income. But for years, it has become harder and harder for farmers to earn a living. 52% households are in debt. In the last 2 years, around 20,000 Indian farmers have died by suicide.

No matter our political affiliation, it is inarguable that there is everything wrong with a world where the people that feed us, starve; where the people that grow the cotton for our clothes, sleep cold; where the people that provide us with the most basic human necessities we need to live our lives, are forced to take their own.

Peaceful protestors have been met with barricades, batons, water cannons, teargas, bullets and badgeless police officers. Journalists are being charged with sedition, with reports of sexual assault from prisons. Over 250 farmers have died, with large-scale Internet shutdowns and food, water and electricity supply chains cut around protestor camps. 

 

The freedom to peacefully protest is a human right. But coverage is limited and a narrative is being created. After one fraction of protests turned violence, in the midst of otherwise overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations, farmers are being labelled unpatriotic; divisive to the nation. Governments have created this narrative throughout history, as it delegitimises groundswell Movements, turning a people vs. problem clash, into a right vs. left clash.
 

Most economists agree Indian agriculture needs reform. But as the biggest democracy in the world, it is not the job of government to push through bills affecting so much of its population without consultation. The laws are thin on detail, say little about minimum-support prices and analyses of their potential effects offer wildly different conclusions, each dependent on environmental-structural factors that differ drastically in every state. However, with millions of farmers risking arrest, assault and death, no amount of technicality or belief in the value of these reforms can condone such disconnect. 

 

There is a serious trust deficit here. The government has a reputation of bypassing oversight to force through big changes overnight-its 2016 demonetisation experiment and draconian lockdown approach created painful memories. In Bihar, a similar system was implemented in 2006. Yet Bihar continues to be one of the poorest states, now with less regulation and broken promises of investment, growth and prosperity. So, instead of drafting policies in the air and selling them to those whose trust it has repeatedly betrayed, the government must heal that trust deficit through dialogue and collaboration.

 

India is a country with unimaginable beauty, talent and potential. But that potential is constantly quashed, generation after generation by lack of unity, casteism and misogynistic systems upheld by dated, power-hungry men. This social division is something we inherited from our colonial and invasion-laden past and, by tearing us apart, holds our great country back. 

 

We must bring ourselves out of politics and ground ourselves back into humanity. Irrespective of who wins this battle, we will always lose the war against oppressive, patriarchal systems that hold all of us back if we do not treat one another with basic human decency. 

 

The coming years will continue show us that we must drastically shift our mindsets to a world view to have any chance of sustaining life on this planet. If countries stay silent in the face of injustice in others, our world does not stand a chance at healing collectively. It will stay broken in those individual parts, and those cracks will keep spreading.

 

As meaningless as your voice may seem, to someone on the other side of the world being silenced, it is more powerful than you know. What is happening in India needs the eyes and ears of the global community.